Leaders Need to Work the Diagonals

Posted 09.27.2010

As I discuss in The Next Level, one of the key shifts that leaders have to make as they move into bigger roles is to pick up looking left and right as they lead and to let go of just looking up and down as they lead. What I mean by the picking up part is that higher level leadership requires getting out of your own lane and collaborating with peers to get meaningful things done. What I mean by the letting go part is that you have to expand your field of vision beyond the vertical axis of just focusing on what your boss wants and what your team needs. To be effective, you’ve got to go broader.

When I was doing the research for the second edition of The Next Level, I was reminded that your field of vision needs to extend even further – beyond left and right and up and down. You also need to work the diagonals.  So, that’s one of the changes I’ve made in the second edition. The advice from successful executive leaders is pick up looking left, right and diagonally as you lead and let go of primarily looking up and down as you lead.

One of the leaders I interviewed for the new edition was Avon’s Chief Information Officer, Donagh Herlihy.  Here’s some of what he said about his diagonal leadership strategy:

I’m very informal… I build relationships and trust with peers, but I also like to know their people up and down the organization… I have lots of different informal data points.  A lot of it is just when you bump into people and you know them, even though there are two levels of separation from you… Having a kind of richer data set in terms of informal feedback is very, very helpful.

So, how do you work the diagonals?  Here are three ideas for how to do it:

Go resonant, not dissonant: Lead in ways that establish resonance and connection with others.  Lighten up on styles that establish dissonance and disconnection with others.  To learn more about this, check out Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.  As their research shows, the resonant styles of leadership involve sharing a vision, coaching others, inviting their input and building personal relationships. If you mix some of those styles in with the dissonant styles of commanding and pacesetting, you’ll enhance your diagonal leadership.

Connect the dots:
  Sure, there’s stuff that’s important to you and that you want to get done. That’s what’s in it for you. Spend some time and energy learning and figuring out what’s in it for them. Make an effort to learn what’s important to others at all levels of the organization and then connect the dots between your priorities and theirs.

Ask, “What do you think?”:  As Tom Peters writes in his book, The Little Big Things asking that question screams, “You are an invaluable person; I respect you; I respect your knowledge… I need your help.”  What do you think? is a powerful question to ask in any direction but particularly so on the diagonals because it’s usually unexpected.  Think about it. When was the last time someone asked you. “What do you think?” Made you feel pretty good didn’t it?

What have you learned about working the diagonals as a leader?  What have the benefits been? What advice do you have for doing it more effectively?